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Truthout Talks With Thom Hartmann About His Legacy as an Author

(Image: Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

“The Thom Hartmann Reader” is a new anthology of writings from the progressive renaissance thinker and radio and television host, who is featured regularly on Truthout. You can receive “The Thom Hartmann Reader” from Truthout with a minimum contribution to independent journalism.

Mark Karlin: Those of us who have known you for many years have one nonpolitical, non-profound question. Given that you do both a radio program and a TV show five days a week and also speak around the country, how have you found the time to write more than 20 substantive, engrossing books, many of which have excerpts in “The Thom Hartmann Reader”?

Thom Hartmann: I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old. When I left my parents’ home when I was 16, I’d wallpapered my bedroom with 56 rejection slips, mostly for bad poetry, and had published one short story in a men’s magazine. I love to write, and think I’ve gotten reasonably good at it. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Your first million words are practice.” That would be about ten novels, and I have seven or eight unpublished novels and several unpublished nonfiction books I wrote decades ago, as I was learning how to write. With my schedule now, which is basically about 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday, I write on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s pretty much why I’ve gone from writing a book a year before I started the radio show to a book every other year now.

Mark Karlin: You write in the introduction to “The Thom Hartmann Reader” that “Rebooting America” is one of your favorite books that you have written. Why?

Thom Hartmann: Because it’s simple, straightforward, solid and solution-based. I start out with Alexander Hamilton’s 11-point plan to build American manufacturing – which President Washington put into place and built this great nation, holding from 1783 until Reagan came into office and began dismantling it. Using that “11-point” template, the first one is to go back to Hamilton’s perspective, which some would call “protectionism.” From there, I have ten more points to put this country back together, from rolling back the Reagan tax cuts, to rolling back the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, to changing our foreign policy. Most of them are just undoing the damage of the Reagan Revolution, although a few are relatively new ideas, like Medicare Part E (the “E” means “for Everybody”).

Mark Karlin: You write that “Rebooting” was inspired by a vision of the nation outlined by Alexander Hamilton. Yet, you clearly side with the Jeffersonian vision of democracy in your book “What Would Jefferson Do?: A Return to Democracy.” Given that Jefferson and Hamilton had very different views of the role of the federal government, how do you reconcile their two competing political philosophies in the two books?

Thom Hartmann: During the Washington administration, when Jefferson was secretary of state and Hamilton secretary of the Treasury, they fought about this. Jefferson wanted America to be agricultural and rural; Hamilton had the vision of a vast industrial power. But a decade later, when Jefferson was president, Jefferson had reconciled himself to Hamilton’s view and strongly defended Hamilton’s vision of protecting our domestic industries with tariffs and trade restrictions. Both men were geniuses.

Mark Karlin: As both BuzzFlash and Truthout have noted, for many years, you were the prescient author of the only book exposing the trumped-up origins of corporate personhood. How did you come to write “Unequal Protection” [embed: } and be so far ahead of the curve on this challenge to democracy?

Thom Hartmann: Louise and I had bought a 150-year-old house in Vermont, and in the attic of the carriage house, I found a few old boxes of badly water-damaged books, including a complete 20-volume set of the collected writings of Thomas Jefferson, published in 1908 on the 100th anniversary of the end of his presidency, by the Thomas Jefferson Association. It was everything from his letters to his diaries to his personal journals, and I spent two years reading it (we’d just sold an advertising agency, so I was “retired” and had some time). I was spellbound, and set out to write a book about the history of American democracy, through the lens of Jefferson, starting with the Boston Tea Party. But when I got up to the 1880s, I came across that US Supreme Court case, Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad. And everybody said the Supreme Court had, in that case, ruled that corporations were people, so I went to the Vermont Supreme Court library and found the original first-edition of the case, and it said no such thing – although law has been based on thinking it said that ever since then, right up to Citizen’s United. That turned the book in a major new direction, and turned it into “Unequal Protection.” (After I finished writing that, I got back to Jefferson with “What Would Jefferson Do.”)

Mark Karlin: Among the major themes that you continually discuss is the need for a robust middle class in the United States. In “Screwed,” you address how that former bulging economic center of our economy has been devastated by trickle-down economics and the aggregation of capital in fewer and fewer hands. The Republicans have lured many middle- or working-class white voters into voting for the GOP based on the so-called social values issues. How did the Democrats lose such a large chunk of the white middle class, or what’s left of it?

Thom Hartmann: Bill Moyers tells that story best, of how LBJ, then his boss, told him how his administration pushing and passing the civil rights and voting rights laws would “lose the South for a generation.” Nixon picked up those frightened white voters with his Southern Strategy; Reagan put it on steroids when his first official speech as a presidential candidate in 1980 was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a little town of 7,000 people that was only famous for having murdered three civil rights workers in the 1960s. Reagan’s speech was about “state’s rights.” And now you have people like Newt Gingrich calling Obama the “food stamp president.” Without dog-whistle code and “fear of the other” – be they gay or Muslim or college-educated – the Republican Party would be totally marginalized like they were for so much of the 20th century.

Mark Karlin: In your book “Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision,” you offer advice on communicating the progressive message. How do you counterattack the appeal of demagogues to the emotional hotspots of the lizard part of the brain that we all have? This is, of course, an issue that George Lakoff and Drew Westen regularly tackle.

Thom Hartmann: John McCain famously pointed out the “dark side of American populism,” the side that Sarah Palin regularly embraces, among others. I’m not sure you can counterattack it. Instead, you have to reassure people and embrace them with programs that make them less fearful. And call out the demagogues who are appealing to their fear. FDR is the perfect role model for this, from his criticism of “economic royalists” in his speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, to his challenged that, “I welcome their hatred” when he announced the New Deal later that year. I wish Obama would channel a little more FDR, the way Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown do. And maybe he will as we get closer to, and through, the election.

Mark Karlin: Walter Lippmann, perhaps the most revered liberal journalist of the first half of the last century, came to believe that democracy was just too damn complicated and detailed to, in essence, “trust it” to voters, and promoted “a governing class.” He despaired that journalism could convey to average citizens enough information for them to make informed decisions about policies, that they made up their minds first and then sought facts to buttress their opinions. How do you respond to Lippmann’s erudite cynicism?

Thom Hartmann: I think he’s wrong, and agree with Jefferson that the instincts of the vast mass of people will most often be right, and when they’re wrong (like Iraq) will self-correct. The biggest challenge we have is to get more people voting – we’re so low, compared to, for example, Australia, where turnout is over 95 percent. De Tocqueville’s 1836 book, “Democracy In America,” which I quote pretty extensively in “Unequal Protection,” is another good source for thoughts on the innate wisdom of average Americans. I believe – and document the science behind it in “What Would Jefferson Do” – that democracy is quite literally in our genes. All we have to do is tap it. Jefferson wrote words to the effect that, when inventing modern American democracy, we didn’t have to look to old, musty books, but instead looked into our hearts and found it there. He was far more right than even he could have imagined.

Mark Karlin: In “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: Revised and Updated: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It’s Too Late,” you offer hope for coming to terms with the environmental destruction of the planet. “Last Hours” inspired Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie “The 11th Hour.” Are we that close to extinction? Heck, it looks pretty grim when we are about to mainline our oil dependency with global-warming-on-steroids shale production and fracking with toxic chemicals.

Thom Hartmann: We’re that close to extinction – or at least massive self-destruction – and we’re also that close to creating a world that genuinely works for all, including all forms of life. It all has to do with our culture, and we have some serious choices we need to make, and make soon.

Mark Karlin: How did your seven books on attention deficit disorder (ADD) affect your thinking about how individual or political conditions are “framed”?

Thom Hartmann: Well, they’re basically “reframing” books. I wasn’t satisfied with the conventional idea that ADD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were “disorders,” and thought that if something was so pervasive in our gene pool, it must have some useful basis. I concluded that people with ADHD would make great aboriginal hunters, whereas people who can become bookkeepers would have been great early farmers. I still believe it, and now there’s the science to back it up, which is documented in my last ADD book, “The Edison Gene.” It’s pretty amazing to come up with a scientific theory, see yourself ridiculed and attacked for years by the medical establishment, and then be vindicated.

Mark Karlin: In “The Prophet’s Way: A Guide to Living in the Now” you describe your own spiritual journey earlier on in your life. What can we find within ourselves to better equip us in this collective journey toward creating a common good?

Thom Hartmann: We need to reconnect with the essence of life if we’re going to be a culture of life. Not just human life, but all life. A reader once commented to me that that book – although the word is never used – is a how-to guide for modern pantheism. I wouldn’t describe it that way, but it’s close. I’m with Meister Eckhard, Isaac Luria, St. John of the Cross, the Dalai Lama, the Sufi mystics and Daniel Quinn: we need to breathe the fire of life daily, to reconnect with the entire universe. Whether you find that through prayer and meditation, or hanging out in the forest, or looking through the lens of a telescope, the awe of “it all” is there deep in all of us, and, I believe, is one of the most powerful forces that can save our world. I particularly recommend the interview with my old friend Michael Hutchison that you can find on my web site for a primer on this topic.

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